A surprising number authors have written while in prison (Alaric Hunt, E. E. Cummings, Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, O. Henry, to name but a few) and the genre of prison literature is very well established. Many would argue that it reached a peak of reader popularity with the groundbreaking novel Papillon by Henri Charrière, which was published in France in 1969. But interest is still, very much alive and well today, especially in the crime fiction genre.
This is my interview with Chris Roy, who is currently serving a life sentence in maximum security Unit 29 of Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchman) for the murder of a drug dealer in his youth. Chris is 37 years old and has written two exciting crime trilogies, Sharp As A Razor and Shocking Circumstances published by New Pulp Press.
You didn’t have an easy childhood, were brought up in a trailer park; was there a lot of crime surrounding you at that time?
I grew up in Fountain Bleau, an area right outside of Ocean Springs, Mississippi. My neighborhood, Gulf Park Estates, is a large one. The south side of it (when I lived there in the 90s) was mostly trailers on small lots, narrow roads winding next to bayous. Woods and trails everywhere. Paradise for a kid with a go-cart or dirtbike; no city police to stop you from driving on the streets.
There was crime, but not much. Folks smoked too much weed, drank way too much beer. But no one was selling crack on the corner or doing drive-bys. The adults I knew were hard workers, mostly roofers, framers, etc., that built houses in the subdivisions going up everywhere. When I was about 11 a friend and I were stealing weed from his parents and selling joints for a couple bucks each. It was nice to have gas money for the go-cart, a new clutch; things like that. A few dollars for bicycle parts.
I believe you were in trouble with the law for stealing from an early age?
Occasionally I stole things. I went to military training school when I was 13, for numerous accounts of grand larceny… and escape from the detention center. The only good that did was put some muscle on me and make me quit smoking. I remember one day at the local beach, not long after getting out, an old redneck told me, “Don’t steal where you live.” That made great sense to my undeveloped mind. Later, I adopted other rules. Only steal from people that can afford it. One day I realized that was wrong, and a new rule came about: only steal from those that deserve it. That last one was tough to follow. I broke all 3 rules a few times, each time deeply regretting it.
When did it become more serious – did you experience any warnings about the dangers of adopting a criminal lifestyle?
When I was about 13 I started buying weed from an older couple that lived around the corner. By then I was known at school as a weed dealer and was even selling it to older kids. When I was 14 I was robbed at gunpoint for a quarter-pound of grass. Right in my mom’s living room. That experience changed the way I thought about the drug business. I didn’t quit, despite my mom telling me too. I was making money at something I was good at. Something that made me, a kid living in a roach-infested trailer, popular in Ocean Springs. I was proud to be known as a guy that did good business.
Do you believe that having your father around, or another credible role model, would have made any difference to what happened to you?
My mom, teachers, aunts, and grandparents – there were plenty of adults in my life that cared and warned me to stop getting in trouble. But there were no examples; I was the first in my entire family to go to prison.
I don’t blame my father for my imprisonment. Though, on reflection, I know I wouldn’t have gone so far that it became life or death if I had a mentor. Someone that didn’t just say, “Don’t do that”, but actually made an impression, showed me where my talents were best used. Hell, maybe that person doesn’t exist.
With hindsight, do you feel that you were always on a collision course with a life in prison?
I experienced a juvenile detention center a few times for brief periods, no more than a couple months each time. Training school for 10 weeks. I knew that stealing would get me time there. I never thought about going to prison for drugs or whatever, because I had never experienced it. Teenagers don’t possess the capability to fully process the consequences of their actions. For myself, I only internalized a lesson once I learned it the hard way.
In October 2001 you were accused of capital murder. What happened at your trial?
At my trial, no one knew what to expect because no one had experienced criminal court. The public defender convinced my folks he knew his business then tried to sell them a life sentence plea. Told them I would get life without parole if I went to trial. The public defender actually swindled my mom and aunts into attempting to get me to sign for a life sentence. That didn’t work. So he had me transported to the Public Defender’s Office in downtown Pascagoula and ambushed me with my dad. Dad reeked of vodka, telling me to take the life sentence and plead guilty. I had never known that level of anger. I was embarrassed, furious, and tried my best to learn law so I could fire the PD. The judge ignored 2 motions I filed, a letter directly to him asking about the motions, and presided over a lopsided trial; my inept PD beaten soundly by the assistant district attorneys. There was so much wrong with my trial.
Mississippi State Penitentiary is an extremely tough place, renowned for its harsh conditions. How do you maintain your own sense of identity?
The #1 activity a person can do for their mind is exercising. Besides all the incredible physiological benefits, consistent exercise develops mental toughness that carries over to other activities. I got into fitness as a kid, but never knew what I was physically capable of until I was thrown in general population with a bunch of cons fresh out of Unit 32 supermax. The #2 activity you can do for your mind, is keeping it sharp by writing letters, though people avoid writing like they avoid exercise.
This is a primitive environment, a tribal one, where guys are constantly vying for status. If you are known for something, that means you are very good at it and have status among those that respect that particular ability. The more talents you have, the more you are known for, the more status you have. There are always people of lower status that hate your reputation and seek to sabotage it.
Have you found a way of protecting yourself from feeling institutionalized?
Staying updated on events in society, enjoying science or car magazines, Men’s Health-type periodicals – and socializing about them – prevents a mind from becoming institutionalized. In Parchman’s maximum security units there are no educational programs. And no incentives to educate yourself. Prison life consumes most; young men grow old as products of a chaotic environment. Many of my accomplishments have been done while under threat; imminent shakedowns, raging fires and floods, inmates throwing feces, urine, trying to kill one another.
How do you manage to stay sane and productive in this environment?
I’ve evolved the ability to block out the dissonance and keep working, whether it’s a writing project, an art piece, promoting my work on a radio show, or just pushing through a workout. There can be incredible pressure at times – knuckleheads “disrupting the orderly running of the institution”, antagonists that hate me and want to see me fail, or administration putting me on a daily shakedown list for being an escape risk (I’m not an escape risk any longer, though have failed to convince the warden…).
Do you have any sayings or mantras which help you get through the tough times?
Have you heard the expression, “You’re either living or dying. Get busy living”? Guys kill a little bit of themselves in here every day. Drugs. Meaningless, life-consuming behavior. Gang activity. Mindless television. Administration allows it to occur, gives them leverage during negotiations with the government for more money: violence, contraband, etc., are security problems that can only be solved with more staff. They need more money to hire, train, and attract more prison staff. Parchman has a brutal, corrupt economy. Being aware of my situation, the machinations of this place and what it means relative to the rest of the world; this retains my sanity and work ethic. Which preserves my reputation. Who cares what the mutts are barking?
Your current series, Shocking Circumstances, features one of the toughest and most resourceful female protagonists in modern crime writing. Are Clarice Ares’ experiences an expression of your own frustration at prison life?
Thank you for that. Such ranking makes me feel like penning another Clarice “Shocker” Ares novel! Her experiences throughout the series are largely fictional. While in prison she does things like make hiding places, build a tattoo machine and trains for fights (I never participated in a fight ring, though trained a lot of guys that did) that are from my own experiences. Her escape is loosely based on my second escape in January 2006. The convict characters are completely fabricated, though their actions and language come from this prison culture.
Did you find it difficult to write from a feminine perspective?
Writing in first person female was very challenging. I got the idea after reading LA Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker. Shocker is what I imagined having a twin sister would be like. A far more talented, non-criminal twin that could out-box me, do better tattoos, and maintain the work ethic of a dozen overachievers. She makes over the top, easy. And she’s a freaking lunatic. Avoiding cliches and stereotypes was so hard! My subscription to Psychology Today helped.
You are currently in maximum security for two escapes in 2005 and 2006, what happened during the first escape and why did it go wrong?
My first escape was in October 2005. A friend and I made it to Tuscaloosa Alabama. A prison guard helping us used their credit card and the US Marshall’s tracked us to a motel. I warned the guard to use cash and a different name. When she came out of the motel office she said, “I used a different name. We have 2 days.” We thought it would be safe. So, I left in her car to go shopping while they had sex. The grocery store, Dollar Tree and a thrift shop were new adventures. I bought clothes and food, toiletries, and wore the biggest smile. I must’ve said hello to 20 people. They probably thought I was on drugs.
The Marshall Service hit the room around 2am with a tactical team. My partner and I had no idea how we were caught until we were discovered, and saw the credit card receipt. The guard was sentenced to 3 years probation.
How did freedom feel after 6 years inside – do you still believe it was worth it?
The simple act of holding a door for someone, walking through a produce aisle and seeing/smelling the displays, opening the mini fridge in the motel room, were wondrous, fascinating experiences.
Before the escape, I was in general population at East Mississippi Correctional Facility and was doing very well for myself. I worked for the Education Department, building props for plays, painting things for classrooms, and tutored math and English. My cell was set up like a tattoo studio. I got all the medical supplies I needed from the clinic nurses, had free world inks and plenty of customers. I had 2 cell phones, bought pizza or gin whenever the mood struck. I even had a few real friends around that had my back. And I still went out the window. No matter how good prison can get, it’s still prison. That was 12 years ago and my time will never be that sweet again. Part of me says, Hell yes, that brief taste of freedom was worth it.
And the second escape attempt in 2006?
3 months later I escaped again, from K9 transport in downtown Meridian. I used a homemade key to get out of my restraints and ran. I got away from 4 officers chasing me, jumped in the back of a truck and changed clothes – I had homemade shorts on under my striped pants. Leaving my jacket and pants in the truck I walked down the crowded sidewalk with the other pedestrians. Police were everywhere looking for a guy running in stripes and a jacket. Some lady came out of a business and pointed me out. It was fun up until then.
Were there any consequences that you hadn’t foreseen?
In my 20s I was deluded with the fantasy of escaping and starting a new life somewhere. I’m 36 now, half my life spent in this dungeon. I think I mentioned I learn lessons only after experiencing them. I was shot at and nearly killed during my second escape. My family’s homes were raided. Things I didn’t plan for. I won’t take risks like that again.
Your latest fiction is taking a much darker turn; do you have any plans for devolving this aspect of your writing further in the future?
Fight scenes, high-speed chases, and technology fill the pages of my thrillers. Action and tension are my strong points. Writing dark fiction has helped me improve in other areas, especially character development and overall storyline. Telling a story without a build up to a fight or heist of some kind has added more to my box of fiction tools. Thinking up a vicious psychopath and telling the story with them as the protagonist has tapped into a level of emotional creativity I didn’t know I possessed. Scary joy.
At the moment, there are no plans to make a permanent transition to the horror genres. In fact, I have another thriller coming out in May 2018, a novella titled Her Name is Mercie.
You teach boxing and are known to be generous with your time and expertise with other writers – including me. What do you gain from doing this; does it help motivate you in any way?
I teach boxing fundamentals to guys, explaining and demonstrating weight distribution and leverage. Tell them how to stand: weight centered, hands up, elbows in, chin down, rotate shoulders, roll fists out, tighten up on the end of the punch. How to turn heels out, twist hips, step in time with the punches. How to throw perfect hooks, uppercuts. Every punch is different. Then I’ll make them tell me how to do it. Teaching someone else how to do it helps them learn it. Writing is like that for me. Just like I can spot poor boxing fundamentals I can recognize where a piece of writing needs improvement. The more experienced I get, the more intuitive it’s become.
It’s incredibly rewarding to see a guy throw a perfect combination after a ton of work I coached personally. I don’t like helping slackers. I’ll make an effort to motivate guys and if they quit then I’ll move on. Same with writers. I’ll help those willing to put the work in. Because I consider their achievements my own, like a coach whose boxers are winning.
If you could reinvent yourself like a new character in one of your stories, who would you be, where would you live, what would you do with your life?
Well, in my previous life I was a rodeo bull. If I could reinvent myself I would be a Burmese Python in the Everglades. They seem to be taking over the animal kingdom.
Hmm… Seriously Chris?
Okay, that’s a bunch of crap. Seriously, I wish I had gone to tech school as a teenager and maybe become like Ace in Shocking Circumstances. Few things in life hold my interest like the workings of electronics, the capabilities of computers. The science of it, applied and theoretical. I wouldn’t need a home. I would go where the work is. Where can I go to learn this, get experience in that? I dream of being part of teams that develop state of the art technology.